Processed food is a primary cause of obesity in the young: Doctors

01 November,2023 09:06 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Aakanksha Ahire

A combination of sugar, fat and salt present in almost all processed and packaged foods and beverages triggers pleasurable feelings in consumers and can be highly addictive. Doctors state this as the leading cause of obesity in young among many other factors

Packaged and fast foods are often engineered to be addictive and can tempt one to overeat. They often contain high levels of sugar, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives. Photo Courtesy: iStock

Key Highlights

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Obesity among young people is a growing concern in India. Earlier, young Indians gained a healthy weight by relishing desi foods like aloo ka paratha and gajar ka halwa. Today, most of us are becoming overweight majorly due to faulty lifestyles.

While a little extra weight might not do much harm, being obese surely invites multiple health issues. To know the key causes of obesity among the young and adopt preventive measures, we reached out to health experts.

Dr Aparna Govil Bhasker, consultant bariatric and laparoscopic surgeon, Saifee, Namaha and Apollo Spectra Hospitals, Mumbai says, "Being healthy and obese are two distinct states that differ significantly in terms of physical well-being and overall health."

According to her, to be healthy goes beyond just the absence of disease; it encompasses a holistic state of well-being. Healthy individuals typically maintain a balanced diet and engage in regular physical activity. They tend to have good stamina, strength, and endurance, enabling them to engage in daily activities without feeling easily fatigued. Good immunity is another hallmark of a healthy person, reducing the chances of falling sick frequently.

Obesity, on the other hand, is characterised by excessive fat accumulation in the body. It is often measured by Body Mass Index (BMI) and is defined by an elevated BMI.

Obesity is associated with an increased risk of various health conditions, which can include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, sleep apnoea, liver disease and more. It can also lead to physical limitations and reduced mobility due to the added weight.

Dr Aniket Mule, consultant internal medicine, Wockhardt Hospitals, Mumbai, says, "Obesity in young Indians is majorly caused by sedentary lifestyle, excessive consumption of processed food, stress and poor eating habits among others."

Common causes of obesity among the young

1. Dietary choices: The excessive consumption of sugary drinks and processed foods is a major factor causing obesity. These foods are often high in calories and low in essential nutrients, making them a poor choice for a balanced diet.

2. Sedentary lifestyle: Technology, such as smartphones, video games, and streaming services have reduced physical activity levels among youth. Hours spent sitting and engaging in minimal physical activity contribute to weight gain.

3. Genetics: Genetic factors can influence a person's susceptibility to obesity. Certain genes may affect metabolism, fat storage, and appetite, making it more challenging for some individuals to maintain a healthy weight.

4. Insufficient sleep: Young people who do not get enough sleep of seven to eight hours are at a higher risk of becoming obese.

5. Medications: Certain medications used to treat various health conditions, can lead to weight gain as a side effect. Young individuals with a genetic predisposition may be more susceptible to medication-induced weight gain.

6. Lack of nutritional education: Most young people are unaware of healthy eating habits, the negative impact of consuming excessive junk food, or the nutritional value of foods and their impact on health. This can result in poor dietary choices and portion control sometimes contributing to weight gain.

Processed food and obesity

Easily available food like burgers, fries, and pizzas and convenience food like instant noodles or soup have led to a majority of youngsters developing poor dietary habits. These are processed foods prepared using modern food production methods and hence, play a significant role in the rising rates of obesity.

"These foods are often engineered to be addictive and can tempt one to overeat. They often contain high levels of sugar, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives. Packaged foods, fast foods and bottled beverages are prepared keeping in mind the bliss point of a human's mind," says Bhasker.

‘Bliss point' is a term used by the food industry to describe the perfect combination of sugar, fat, and salt in processed foods and beverages. This combination is designed to trigger a pleasurable sensory response and keep consumers coming back for more. The taste and addictive qualities of these products make them appealing and irresistible.Educating young adults about the nutritional content of these foods and beverages is essential for promoting healthier choices. It's crucial to raise awareness about the ‘bliss point' and the intentional design of these products aimed at developing a cycle of overconsumption.

Emotional eating leads to obesity

We all turn to greasy foods or munchies to feel good when feeling low or frustrated. However, Mule says, "Consuming unhealthy comfort foods as a coping mechanism to manage stress or other unpleasant emotions can lead to overeating. This can contribute to obesity over time as excess calorie intake leads to weight gain."

Binge eating due to stress may offer temporary relief and comfort, but it comes at a great cost to our overall well-being. In moments of heightened stress, our bodies produce elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This hormonal response can lead to increased cravings, especially for sugary and fatty foods.

Furthermore, the physical and emotional toll of obesity can intensify stress. It can contribute to low self-esteem and mental health issues, creating a vicious cycle of stress and emotional eating.

It is crucial to seek healthier ways of managing stress, such as exercise, relaxation techniques, and seeking support when needed, to break this harmful pattern.

Sugar adds to weight gain

Excessive consumption of sugar-based foods significantly contributes to obesity. One key reason is that sugar is quickly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a rapid spike in blood sugar levels and triggering an insulin response. This can lead to increased fat storage and eventual weight gain if not regulated properly.

Notably, many products labelled as "low-fat" or "diet" often contain added sugars to compensate for reduced fat content, which can be misleading when making healthier choices.

Health risks associated with obesity

Obesity can lead to several significant health risks, each with its own set of consequences.

1. Cardiovascular diseases: Obesity significantly increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Excess body weight puts extra strain on the heart as it needs to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. This continuous stress can lead to the weakening of the heart muscles, making it more challenging for the heart to function efficiently.

2. Type 2 diabetes: Excessive body fat can disrupt the normal functioning of insulin, leading to insulin resistance. As a result, blood sugar levels remain elevated, leading to hyperglycaemia. High blood sugar can damage blood vessels, nerves, and various organs over time.

3. Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD): The liver plays a vital role in metabolising fat and sugars. Excessive fat accumulation in the liver, a common consequence of obesity, can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). If left unmanaged, NAFLD can progress to more severe conditions.

4. Hypertension or high blood pressure: Excess body fat increases the workload on the heart and can lead to higher blood pressure. Over time, untreated hypertension can damage blood vessels, the heart, and other organs, raising the risk of heart disease, stroke, and kidney problems.

5. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): OSA is a condition characterised by repeated interruptions in breathing during sleep. Excess body fat, particularly around the neck, can lead to airway obstruction, causing symptoms like snoring and disrupted sleep.

6. Reproductive health: In men, obesity can result in a decrease in testosterone levels and impaired sperm quality. Excess weight is associated with increased oxidative stress in semen and higher rates of DNA damage in sperm cells. These factors not only make conception more difficult but also increase the risk of miscarriages and birth defects.

In women, obesity can disrupt hormonal balance by increasing insulin resistance leading to menstrual irregularities, such as infrequent or absent periods. One common condition associated with obesity in women is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which can lead to irregular menstrual cycles, reduced ovulation, and infertility.

Ways to manage obesity

Both Bhasker and Mule share effective tips for preventing and managing obesity:

1. Prevention:

Lifestyle modification: Preventing obesity begins with adopting a healthy lifestyle. This includes maintaining a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Reducing the consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods like fast food and sugary drinks is crucial. Portion control, mindful eating, and paying attention to hunger cues are also essential.

Regular physical activity: Encouraging physical activity from an early age is vital for obesity prevention. Engaging in regular exercise, such as walking, cycling, or sports, helps burn calories and maintain a healthy weight. Aim for at least 30 to 40 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise for five days per week.

2. Treatment:

Diet and nutrition counselling: For individuals already dealing with obesity, dietary counselling can be instrumental. Nutritionists and registered dietitians can help individuals develop personalised, sustainable eating plans that promote weight loss and overall health.

Physical activity programs: Exercise is a cornerstone of obesity treatment. Structured physical activity programs, guided by fitness professionals, can help individuals develop an exercise routine tailored to their needs and preferences.

Behavioural therapy: Addressing the psychological aspects of obesity is crucial. Behavioural therapy can help individuals identify and modify unhealthy eating habits and emotional triggers for overeating.

Disclaimer: This information does not replace professional medical advice. Consult a qualified specialist or your physician for personalised guidance.

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